The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 30, 2001


Treasures of Carlisle's Past: "Of Cradles and Carriages"

Within the Carlisle Historical Collections there is an interesting assortment of children's furniture, dating from the nineteenth century. While few pieces of adult furniture remain, there are three cradles, two carriages and one child's chair in one room of the Historical Society's new home, the Samuel Heald House. If these pieces could talk, they would tell interesting stories of
A child's carriage from the Dr. Austin Marsh household.
childrearing in the past.

New attitudes toward children began to appear during the early part of the nineteenth century in the post-Enlightenment world. The innocence of childhood replaced a doctrine of "infant damnation" and resulted in different childrearing practices. Authors have suggested, that while children were never really considered "miniature adults," nonetheless in the Colonial Period they were encouraged to become morally and physically "upright" (like adults) as soon as possible. Thus, they were often swaddled to a board, dressed in long skirts which precluded crawling and placed in standing stools to keep them confined and safe from the open hearth. With the advent of nineteenth-century advice authors such as Catherine Beecher, William Alcott and Lydia Maria Child, parents were encouraged to nurture their children. Advice books began appearing in the 1830s with such titles as The Father's Book, The Mother at Home, The Mother's Book. These authors began to call for childhood furniture such as swings, cradles with open sides (to allow air to flow) and cribs.

Infants slept in cradles

In early America infants generally slept in cradles, by their parents' bed at night and by the warmth of the fire during the day time. Solid
Cradle made by Paul Forbyush in 1801.
sides and a hood kept drafts away. We do know that parents often brought babies into bed with them as well. It was not uncommon for a new sibling to arrive every two years. Birth rates declined during the 1800s: At the beginning of the century five children was the norm, but by 1910 the figure had declined to 3.42 per family. (Cited in Light of the Home by Harvey Green, 1983). As the older children grew, they might share a bedstead. To this day we equate cradles with young infants, thinking of the gentle rocking as a way to quiet a fretful baby. However, another school of thought was developing during the nineteenth century. Several advice writers cautioned against "too violent" rocking which might actually harm the child. By the end of the 1800s, the stationary crib had replaced the cradle as the infant bed of choice.

Two wooden cradles rest in the town's historical collections. One was handmade in 1801 by Paul Forbush for his son, Paul Green Forbush, born in 1801. Both father and son are buried in Green Cemetery. The father lived for 58 years and died in 1830, the son lived until 1885. Paul Green Forbush served as one of three appointed townspeople to represent Carlisle at the centennial of the Concord-Lexington battle in Lexington in 1875.

The second cradle has a wooden hood. It was purchased by Dr. and Mrs. Austin Marsh for their baby daughter, Mary Amanda, born in 1840. Mary Amanda later had a business in Lowell fabricating hair jewelry and served as a newspaper correspondent. She was a noted musician whom the School Committee recognized in 1887 for beginning music instruction in the Carlisle Schools.

Two other items of childhood furniture come from the Marsh household. One is a wicker cradle with a fabric hood and the other is a wheeled baby carriage. The elaborateness of the carriage relates to the social prestige Carlisle's physician had. Carriages such as the one in the Carlisle Historical Society's collection
A child's pull cart.
came into vogue later in the nineteenth century so it is difficult to ascertain whether it was purchased for the doctor's children or grandchildren. Mary Amanda never had any offspring. Her sister, Susie, had three daughters.

The carriage is quite grand, with a padded upholstery, decoratively painted sides and large metal wheels. The baby faced forward, unlike modern carriages which have the infant facing the mother or caretaker. In Victorian times, the carriage or "perambulator" was more than a device in which to wheel the child for fresh air. Children were thought of as the "centerpieces" of the Victorian household, and the carriage allowed the parents to literally "parade" the child. Interestingly enough, a Leominster firm, the F.A. Whitney Carriage Company, pictures carriages quite similar to the Marsh one in a catalogue of 1876.

A much more modest hand-pulled cart resides in the historical collections. It would have been more typical of early nineteenth-century devices used to give children fresh air or take the child along on one's errands. It has a seat, foot rest and a pull-handle.

A child's high chair is also part of the town's collection. It is a simple child-sized wooden chair, painted black, but obviously raised to accommodate a child at the table. This chair has no tray, although by the late 1800s trays were usually part of what we now term "high chairs."

According to childrearing author,William Alcott, high chairs were not common in the early 1800s. Mealtime was important to the nineteenth-century family and an opportunity to instruct children in proper manners and etiquette. A simple diet of bread and milk was advised over the rich foods of the adults. Proper chairs would insure that little hands did not reach for unsuitable delicacies. Indeed, advertisements for baby food, such as one for "Mellins Food" manufactured in Boston by Doliber and Goodale, depict a smiling infant satisfied with special blends for nourishment. By the end of the 1800s children's dining chairs had become more elaborate and usually had trays, making them more self-contained.

Children's furniture from a hundred years ago looks plain compared to the elaborate designs for nurseries today. The colorful and fanciful decorations were missing and the technologies of car seats and infant carriers not needed. Nonetheless, we can see the great care parents took of their children in Carlisle with an elegant carriage, practical pull-cart and high chair and a variety of cradles, one lovingly handmade.

(Note: Much of the information in this article came from "Cradle to Crib: The Revolution in Nineteenth-Century Children's Furniture," by Karen Calvert in "A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920," published by the Stong Museum, 1984.)

2001 The Carlisle Mosquito